How Chai Pani became America’s most outstanding restaurant

Chai Pani, an Indian street food joint in North Carolina was crowned America’s most outstanding restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Chai pani became the first indian restaurant to win america's most outstanding restaurant at the james beard foundation awards.
Chai Pani became the first Indian restaurant to win America’s most outstanding restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Following a two-year pandemic induced hiatus, the James Beard Foundation Awards are back with an interestingly diverse line-up at their Chicago event. 

The New York City-based national non-profit culinary arts organisation was named so in honour of James Beard, an American chef and cookbook author. And according to their 2022 winner list, it’s the eccentric Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani that bagged America’s most outstanding restaurant.

Owing to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and effects of lockdowns (such as the closure of restaurants), the industry’s mind was far from awards. Which makes this year’s presentation all the more ceremonious for all winners, including Chai Pani, of course. 

Lamb kheema pav or pav bhaji? Both are excellent options at chai pani.
Lamb Kheema Pav or Pav Bhaji? Both are excellent options at Chai Pani.

The restaurant first opened its doors to Asheville in 2009, helmed by five-time James Beard-nominated Chef Meherwan Irani. In a little over a decade, they’ve managed to expand their footprint with eight restaurants, spread over Atlanta and Charlotte. Additionally, the exemplary chef has also created sister company Spicewalla. These masalas have made their mark across home kitchens as well as established restaurants nationally.

Chai Pani is essentially slang for small bribes or snack time in India. In the US, the restaurant has interpreted the same as a delicious elevation of street food, arguably the best gateway to any cuisine. The restaurant features chaat in a no-nonsense manner. So you can expect a menu full of Sev Puri, Dahi Puri, Pav Bhaji and more, all with their signature crunchy, spicy, sweet, and tangy flavours. Taking things one step further into a restaurant space, Chai Pani also brings you thalis, perfect for a more filling meal to share with your entire family.

Chef meherwan irani up and quit his day job in 2009 to start chai pani. The rest as they say, is history.
Chef Meherwan Irani up and quit his day job in 2009 to start Chai Pani. The rest as they say, is history.

To think it all began with Chef Meherwan quitting his day job in sales. According to the website, ‘whether it was a midlife crisis or a stroke of genius is debatable’. Either way, the five James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast are testament to it being far more than a stroke of luck. He runs Chai Pani alongside Co-Founder and his wife Molly Irani, and attributes most of the restaurant’s success to an amazing team.

While accepting the award on stage, Irani says, “Restaurants are so much greater than the sum of what’s inside the four walls. A restaurant has the power to transform — transform the people that work there, transform the people that come in, transform the communities we’re in, transform society. Restaurants can transform the world.”

So what exactly is it that makes what most Indians consider street food worthy of a James Beard nod? What Chai Pani has managed to skillfully do is elevate the exceptional flavours of chaat as a worthy snack for a community that loves its ‘food on the go. As multicultural cuisines continue to explode in the US, things like chaat have become the new cult favourites for a classy, trendier generation.

Thalis are the perfect way to spend some family time at chai pani.
Thalis are the perfect way to spend some family time at Chai Pani.

Add to that culinary buzzwords like vegan, plant-based, and vegetarianism as a whole — and you have a winner on your hands. For those unwilling to compromise on flavours and quality, Chai Pani has emerged as the perfect reason for conversion to the greener ways of life, where sustainable eating becomes an Instagrammable indulgence.

According to the award committee this year, the organization took the hiatus as an opportunity self-reflect. As a result, you have a far more diverse recipient and even nominee slate, better reflecting the makeup of the US. There was also more geographic variety, as opposed to the usual New York or Chicago winners. However, it’s worth noting that the awards come in the backdrop of surging inflation, with Americans paying the highest prices for food in 40 years. Just something to think about.

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